America's Population By Income Tiers

By Nathaniel Whelan on June 23 2020 in Economics

Image credit: Hyejin Kang/Shutterstock.com
Image credit: Hyejin Kang/Shutterstock.com
  • Which income tier an individual falls under does not depend on amount of money, but rather money versus size of household.
  • In 1971, 61 percent of Americans were considered middle class; 45 years later, that number has dwindled down to 52 percent.
  • Approximately 73 percent of Americans expect the middle class to continue shrinking over the next thirty years, widening the income gap between the upper and lower classes.

Analysts can study a country’s population through multiple lenses: political, racial, and economical just to name a few. One way to assess a population through an economical lens is by household income. This allows analysts to measure the country’s average standard of living and to predict future financial trends.

The following is an examination of America’s population through an economical lens. It describes the current state of the three income tiers and suggests whether they will change by the year 2050.

The Three Income Tiers

Generally speaking, income can be broken down into three separate brackets: upper class, middle class, and lower class.

An upper class individual can be defined as someone who lives well above the average standard of living. In a capitalist society, their wealth grants them a spot at the top of the social hierarchy. They thrive because their money allows them to achieve success. They tend to hold political power or are people of high influence. Government employees, lawyers, businesspeople, professors, doctors, real estate moguls, and celebrities typically exist within this tier. Whether or not someone falls within this category, however, does not strictly depend on amount of money, but rather money versus size of household. In 2016, a single individual with a yearly income of $78,281 was considered upper class, while it took a household of four exactly double that.

The middle class is somewhat harder to define; the United States government does not even have a strict definition. In its simplest form, someone is considered middle class if they make the national average. On the other hand, some analysts consider the middle class to be anyone living above the poorest twenty percent, but below the wealthiest twenty percent. Others base it off how much each individual household spends, while others take into consideration ease of access to education and various social services. Regardless, those who live within this tier generally lead comfortable, stable lives. Jobs in this income bracket vary drastically, but it can include anything from a teacher to a truck drive, from a nurse to a software developer.

The wide gap between upper and lower income groups is starkly visible in this image. Image credit: Lisa-S/Shutterstock.com

Living in a capitalist society, those who belong to the lower class are at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Unlike the upper class, their lack of money strips them of power and certain opportunities. In many cases, day-to-day life can be a struggle depending on circumstances. They tend to work minimum wage jobs, such as retail. In 2016, the average income of a lower class household was $25,624. It should be noted that it can be difficult categorizing the lower class, as many scholars break it down further into the working poor, the unemployed, and the homeless. These individuals are often frowned upon by those of good financial standing, but it is important to understand that people who fall into these subcategories are not there by choice.

A Study of America’s Population By Income

When examining America’s population based on income over the past forty years, a slight but distinct pattern begins to emerge: the middle class is slowly shrinking, while both the upper and lower classes are growing.

In 1971, 61 percent of Americans were considered middle class. Over the years, this number has dwindled. In 2016, only 52 percent found themselves within that economic bracket. That is an entire nine percent difference, which raises the question: where did that nine percent go? Up the social hierarchy, or down to the bottom rung?

Within that same time span, the percentage of Americans in the lower class increased by four percent (25 to 29), while the upper class grew by five percent (14 to 19). Even though this is an almost even divide of the nine percent, it bears noting that the lower class is exactly ten percent larger than the upper class. But what this ultimately signifies is that the income gap between Americans is only growing larger. In fact, analysts have discovered that it is currently at the highest level ever recorded.

This issue is exacerbated by the fact that financial gains for America’s middle class have been modest compared with the gains of the upper class, causing a wider rift between these two social groups.

New Trend Or Same Old Story?

Image credit: Ollyy/Shutterstock.com

Given these numbers, can we predict what America will look like in 2050? When asked, the public does not sound entirely optimistic about the future. Approximately 73 percent of Americans fully expect the middle class to continue shrinking over the next thirty years, widening the income gap between the upper and lower classes. Furthermore, the public is also doubtful regarding the standard of living for the average family, with 44 percent predicting that it will get worse. Almost surprisingly, these views are shared across demographics and are for the most part not the opinions of a particular group or class.

It is perhaps a sour note to end on, but if this trend does indeed continue, it will have proven the adage: the rich get richer, and the poorer get poorer.

The data mentioned in the table below has been taken from the public opinion polls and demographic research of Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan organization that keeps the public up-to-date regarding global issues and trends.

America's Population By Income Tiers

YearLower (% of population)Middle (% of population)Upper (% of population)
1971256114
1981265915
1991275617
2001285418
2011295120
2016295219

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